I was once a slave to food. It seemed to speak to me. Come over her, sweetheart, just take a taste. And I often obliged, particularly when it was beautifully presented, garnished with a sliver of a flower or topped with a drizzle of fruit sauce and sugar beads. When I could see the salt sparkle from its top and smell the pepper and garlic wafting up overhead, casting a reassuring net over my kitchen.
I couldn't go wrong if I just had a little, right?
But then it happened that I'd eat too much, and my stomach would swell. I'd feel nauseous from the fat or excess sugar, dizzy from disappointment and regret. That self-control I fostered in so many other aspects of my life seemed to leave me when I brought the fork to my mouth.
Eating was a constant battle, and I knew I wasn't alone.
An astonishing 67% of Americans are overweight or obese, and up to about 4% of women suffer from anorexia and/or bulimia in their lifetime and 5% experience binge-eating disorder. Then there are people like me -- never overweight or obese, never having had an eating disorder. I was always of normal weight and yet still didn't feel like I was the master of food or my time with it.
I ate because I was bored, nervous, sad, scared, distracted. I didn't eat because I was overtasked, anxious, freaking out. In a sense -- whether I ate or not -- it was almost never about the food. It was about the emotion, place, time, who I was with and what we were doing, the depth and resonance of our connection.
And I felt it in my body, because when we're not connected to what we're putting into our mouths, we don't always make the best choices. We fill our stomachs before our body is even aware of it. We rack ourselves with guilt and berate ourselves for being weak and giving in to a stupid temptation that seems easy enough to avoid.
I felt it in my energy or the lack thereof. Bad choices, mindless eating, a body that wasn't functioning as it should. I sensed it in my head too. When I would write or do research, a fog appeared and no hand waving could cause it to dissipate. Sentences crumbled, ideas tangled up, and progress came to a halt.
Every day, every meal, every snack should not -- cannot -- be a battle.
Our relationship with food is complex, like a spider web with too many silvery threads to count, crossing in and out of each other. What we eat may affect our emotions, and our emotions may affect what we eat. Our biology may influence our cravings, and our food choices may, in turn, alter our biology. Our personality traits may dictate whether or not we submit to a craving or desire. And then there are the countless other personal, environmental, social, and other factors that shape our relationship with food.
Research will continue to untangle the intertwined relationship between mood and food, weight and emotions, personality and diet success. Dieting will continue to be a multibillion-dollar industry. Fads will still burst onto the scene, taking the public by storm, before quietly retreating into insignificance.
Times may change, facts may be uncovered, and social norms may evolve. But there is one truth I've found -- we need to be mindful of our experience with food.
It is this single action that changed my relationship with food. I simply started to pay attention to what I was eating, why I was eating, and how it was making me feel.
Too often we don't savor our time with food, feel its texture, smell its aroma, relish the complexity of its taste. Instead, we wolf down our food, stuff it in our mouths as we are working, walking, talking on the phone, or driving. It's become almost an inconvenience, a task between texting, checking social media, and gorging on the latest tragic, odd news on the Internet.
Too many are us are not eating well because we're not paying attention.
Forget dieting. Try focusing on your food, savoring rather than stuffing it down. Examine how your emotions contribute to your food intake, and what circumstances help you make healthy versus unhealthy choices. Pay attention to how you feel after you eat. What makes you feel awake, energetic, and joyful? What brings you down, and makes you feel bloated, headachy, lethargic, guilty or depressed?
Once you are mindful of your eating and the effects on your body and mind, then you can begin to design a healthier life, to become the master rather than a slave to food.
It easy to write out lists and directions to follow but hard to make changes, hard to carve out the time necessary to devote to ourselves, difficult to break our bad habits and begin the arduous work of building new ones.
I offer no quick solutions. My journey has been a decades-long process. It took time and patience, and there is always room for improvement. But I found out so much about myself and, as a result, am better because of it.
If you are one of the billions out there who struggle with unhealthy eating habits, know that food is not the enemy. Once you lay bare your relationship to food, once you uncover your personal map to using food to fuel your body and mind, then you can begin the shift -- one small step at a time -- to become the healthiest version of you.
Dr. Amanda Richardson is a health coach who works with individuals to change their relationship to food and develop healthier habits that last a lifetime. For more information, see her website at http://wellhealthihc.com
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.